Ya Gotta Have Fun, Baby

In January I sent a note to Elder Chaplain subscribers soliciting their personal experiences of the topics shared in this blog. I have since had some wonderful conversations with a few of you, and this column is the fruit of one of them.

When Kevin moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, fresh out of college, he struggled to make connections and build a new life while working a mundane job in a bank.  Before long, though, he met Marcia, a travel agent in her early 50s who offered him warm friendship and soon became his favorite customer.  On the surface they had little in common, but Marcia’s fun, upbeat enthusiasm and zest for life was exactly what Kevin needed.

A few years later Kevin left LA to attend grad school.  His subsequent work and life took him many other places, but Marcia remained an anchoring presence.  They talked regularly by phone, and from time to time Marcia bailed Kevin out of travel jams.  Kevin visited California often and relocated there more than once, where Marcia became a fixture at many parties and celebrations that Kevin hosted.

When COVID hit, Kevin was no longer able to travel to California.  Cognizant of Marcia’s advancing years and realizing how much time had passed since he’d last spoken to her, he recently called only to find her number was no longer active.  Panicked, Kevin tried unsuccessfully to contact Marcia through several family members. As her 93rd birthday was approaching, he mailed a card to her last known address and, a few days later, was joyful to receive a phone call from Marcia.

She began, “I’m not doing so good, baby.  I don’t know that you’re gonna want to see me in this state.” Kevin replied, “I’m flying out to California right away.  You’re still one of my dearest friends.” 

Right after this, Kevin learned from Marcia’s son that she was rapidly declining and her family was trying to find her an assisted living placement.  By the time Kevin arrived in LA two weeks later, Marcia had moved directly to residential hospice. The setting was wonderful and her caregivers were attentive and kindhearted, but Marcia had continued to decline and was asleep most of the time.

Kevin began, undeterred.  “Marcia, I know you’re in there and can hear me, so I’m just going to talk.  You don’t need to respond at all, I just want you to hear what I have to say.”  He recounted many high points of their 40-year relationship, and how much her friendship and constancy meant to him.  He told her she had always reminded him that, despite life’s hardships, it was important to bring a sense of joy and fun to every moment in life.

With that, Marcia opened her eyes briefly, smiled, and said “Ya gotta have fun, baby.”  Marcia died two days later.

Kevin called to share this story with me the evening that Marcia died.  He was not yet aware of her death, though he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she has passed by now.”  He just needed to talk about his extraordinary friend and he knew I would want to listen to his story.  Indeed I did.

Being present with someone who has begun actively dying is never easy, but Kevin’s instincts were spot on.  Research tells us that hearing is the last sense to go, so one should always act as if the patient is fully aware and listening, even if we receive no confirmation.  Kevin may have spoken out of his own need for expression, but what a gift he provided to Marcia!  I can imagine nothing more meaningful to receive on my own deathbed than a visit from a cherished friend to express what our relationship has meant to them.  And what a tremendous reward for Kevin to know that his words were received and appreciated.  This is end-of-life accompaniment at its finest.

Still, Kevin felt a some guilt for having lost touch with Marcia during COVID.  It’s easy after losing someone close to think of opportunities for connection that went unfulfilled.  I find it hard myself to reflect on anyone I have loved and lost without thinking of times I wished I’d shown up better, things I wished we’d shared but never did.  Kevin demonstrated how much he valued their friendship through the lengths he went to re-establish connection with Marcia and to share a final visit.  We are never the perfect friends we wish we could be, but I hope Kevin finds peace and acceptance that he was a very good friend indeed to Marcia.  I know I am grateful to count him as a friend myself.

While searching the internet for Marcia’s contact information, Kevin made an upsetting discovery:  Marcia’s husband had been murdered a few years before Kevin met her, leaving her to finish raising her children on her own.  Kevin asked me how he could have known her all these years without learning this—if she felt that close to him, wouldn’t she have told him?  I shared something I’ve had to learn as a chaplain:  trust a person to disclose what they wish to disclose.  Just because a relationship isn’t transparent doesn’t mean it isn’t close–think of all that is not disclosed between parent and child, even when they are close.  We set boundaries to serve our purposes in all our relationships. 

Perhaps, we speculated together, Marcia didn’t want to burden Kevin, and their relationship, with the knowledge of this traumatic event, especially given how young Kevin was when they met.  Perhaps spending time with Kevin was her “happy place” where this event did not intrude, and she wanted to keep it that way.  Perhaps one of the things she treasured in their relationship was that Kevin’s company offered a space where, in keeping with her motto, she could always have fun.

7 thoughts on “Ya Gotta Have Fun, Baby

    1. Thanks for your comment, Johan, and for your loving reflections on your teacher Galina. I think your situation is more common than the story of Marcia and Kevin–we think to check in on an important person from our past only to discover they are no longer with us. We need to make peace with that, too … but that’s a different story for another time!


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